Monday, September 23, 2013

Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi

Hey, remember when light novel adaptations were something to actually be interested in? When they were something more than stories about your sister inexplicably wanting your dick/a harem of teenaged girls inexplicably wanting your dick/your sister in addition to a harem of teenaged girls inexplicably wanting your dick? Remember series like Kino's Journey, Spice and Wolf, and heck, even The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya? Well to be fair I don't actually remember that time, as that was a little before my time as an anime fan (and even if I was I certainly didn't know what a light novel was), but I know of it! I know that there was a brief period where light novels were interesting and original! But alas, no more.

Or so you might have thought, but along came Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi (AKA The Sunday Without God), looking and sounding interesting and original! On a Sunday 15 years ago, God abandoned the world. As a result, nobody can die or reproduce - or rather they can die, but continue to live normally, deteriorating all the while. The only people who can give the walking dead their eternal rest are the Gravekeepers, an enigmatic group of people whose powers and shovels can bury the dead for good. Ai Astin, our protagonist and focal character, is a young girl raised in a small village, who is unique in the short history of this era in that she's the only half-human/half-gravekeeper.

Could this be the series that proves light novels still have potential as a medium?

Just a heads up: mild spoilers ahead

Broken up into individual arcs, Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi's story is a bit of a mixed bag. The first couple of arcs, which is the entire first half of the series, are pretty excellent. The first one is Ai's introduction to the wider world, in which her father - who she had never met - by chance comes to her village. Turns out that the people in her village were all dead, but hiding it from her to ensure she doesn't grow up lonely and feeling unloved. Her father - Humpnie Humbert - comes along and blows them all away, before revealing the state of things to her. They argue, they fight, Ai learns stuff about her mother and her duty as a Gravekeeper, and as an introduction to the world it works really well. Important concepts such as the living dead and the Gravekeepers are introduced in memorable ways, and exceptions to the new rules of the world - in Ai and Humpnie - are introduced and given the narrative importance they deserve. It even manages to end on a surprisingly emotional note, which is not bad for three episodes in to a series, before Ai leaves on a journey to "save the world" with a 'friend' of Humpnie's, Yuri, and a Gravekeeper who's also an adult woman, Scar.

The unique atmosphere of the setting is also conveyed fantastically. The focus on death and life, of a very spiritualistic take on an Abrahamic religion, all set against a quiet, French rural landscape that is showing signs of returning to nature is evocative and even beautiful. The visuals enhance this atmosphere so much further, using very vibrant, fantastical shades, with a lot of darks to help subdue the tone, overlain with some very dream-like lighting and plenty of what I guess can only be described as wisps. It all looks magically, wistful and bittersweet.

Breathtaking aesthetics

The second arc both builds on the elements introduced in the first arc, and takes the atmosphere in a really interesting, slightly different direction. It largely takes place in Ortus, a closed off city for the dead; they need not fear the Gravekeepers here. The first arc introduced the idea of the dead being able to carry on 'living' as normal, so seeing an entire city run and controlled by the dead as a place of solidarity and safety makes sense; it very much builds off those already established concepts, expanding them and making the world feel that much more defined and realised.

Seeing dead people inside the town, all wearing masquerade masks during a night festival, is probably one of the most memorable images in the entire series. The celebration amongst a deceased population, in a bustling city standing in the middle of an empty land, makes for such an interesting mood; combined with the actual story of this arc (involving the Idol of Murder, the Princess revered as a God and her involvement with the 'lives' of the city) and the change in atmosphere ishard to describe. It's more contemplative, less emotional than that established in the first arc, but no less engaging and brilliant. Again, very dream-like and almost surreal in content and scope, with a religious twist.

It's unsettling, even, but not in an unpleasant way

All this early goodwill and momentum gets squandered pretty quickly with the following arc, where Ai gets quickly and inexplicably dumped into a school (and I thought we would be able to escape this setting if only for one series) where she meets a bunch of teenagers with special powers that very much fit in with the established tone and nature of this series, such as being able to breathe underwater, or eat absolutely anything. Or have two sisters of a triplet summon the spirit of their late third sister by pressing their faces and bodies up against each other. Or never fail to miss a throw.

It's so fucking stupid.

Bonus! We pretty quickly get a fanservice scene with all the girls in the baths, followed by a load of "BAKA ECCHI HENTAI" 'humour' (it's really hard to type that with the same inflection - dripping with loathing - that I'd speak it with) when the boys tunnel up into the room. Turns out they're trying to escape and blah blah blah it lasts two episodes and none of the characters are memorable and it's all around terrible.

The next 'arc' is a single episode which purports to explain the origins of Gravekeepers, and the net effect is to make me wish it had simply been left a mystery. It also has some utterly confusing and unexplained angst on the part of Scar.

HA HA HA HA HA fucking kill me now

That third arc in particular did so much damage to my perception of this series. The goofy fucking powers just did not fit in with the themes, motifs and imagery of life and death, of spirituality and religion, that we had exclusively seen in the series to date, and the fanservice and moronic, cheap 'jokes' just completely killed the atmosphere. But it also serves to highlight some real flaws that have actually been around since the beginning.

Primarily, Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi has a real problem keeping its tone consistent, or at least non-jarring. In the first arc alone, Ai loses everyone she grew up with and knew in a very short period of time, but a day later is more than happy to get a piggyback ride and laughing with the guy who shot them all! That switch from some pretty heavy, pretty serious stuff, to sudden light-heartedness, can be really off-putting and jarring. And in the second arc, there's a character that is made up from half of one person and half of another. Like, straight down the middle. And there are five of them that get rotated around. It just contrasts so strongly against the setting, against the tone, the atmosphere and mood, that it can easily break the willing suspension of disbelief.


Now, these complaints I'm airing about the first couple of arcs I found to actually be fairly minor; others have expressed otherwise, so your mileage may vary. But when it comes to the third arc in the school, they're accentuated so much more that it became really hard to watch while it lasted. It was also the start of when I began to feel that the creator really didn't have a focused vision for the world of Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi - what it contains, the rules of it, and just how it all works. The super powers struck me as added because "why not?" as opposed to something planned carefully, just thrown in there for the sake of it. They're not really connected to the previously established concepts and rules, and again, just don't fit in with the feel of the series.

This extends to the very foundation of the final arc. Two of the high-schoolers from the third arc actually escaped from a town that's in its own world, stuck in a temporal loop where the world hasn't been dying and everything is nice and so and so forth. It's just more supernatural stuff, of a completely different nature, with a very weak attempt to work it into the world already established.

And we're back in a fucking school

In fact, it does something worse - instead of taking an opportunity to explore the real world's background, to do some proper world-building, we're taken out to explore and focus on something that is by its nature independent of all that. I don't really have any complaints about the actual story of this arc - it basically ends on a plothole, failing to explain some MAJOR things, but is otherwise a pretty good little narrative with some lovely moments - but I can't help but feel like it was a wasted opportunity.

I do feel a little conflicted though. The third and final arcs are terrible and alright, sort of unnecessary, respectively, but they do establish and explore the concepts of 'wishes' in the context of the setting. It was introduced in the second arc, but is taken and built on further here. Whether it was necessary or not is up for debate, but it does give some great perspective on the climax of the first arc - and that maybe Humpnie was able to overcome his 'problem' thanks to a powerful wish being fulfilled. But at the same time, no matter how much it added to the stronger, earlier arcs, the Gravekeepers, the dead that cannot die and the fact that God has abandoned the world would have been more than enough to spin a compelling, unique, intelligent and thoroughly engaging story out of.

In time, the dead will know peace

Despite all my criticism and complaining above, Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi is generally not a bad series. There is a single awful episode, and just some weak moments. If anything, my complaining is indicative of how much I enjoyed it, and that I'm just frustrated that it wasn't better; there is so much potential in the setting and the premise that went unrealised, and the flaws like the inconsistent tone and unfocused world-building just serve to highlight that fact. But it does get some things right: the first two arcs are generally pretty great, and the final arc is far from bad. The atmosphere is simply superb, and many different elements both contribute and benefit from it in a really great way; the marriage between tone, visuals and content is really good.

I guess in the end I maybe enjoyed it more than it deserved, and that I want it to be better than it actually is, but I can't help but see Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi as an ambitious and original series marred by a handful of flaws, and frustrating in how much unrealised potential it truly had. But it is enjoyable, and it is far from being bad. Justa little bit disappointing.

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